Plasma vs. LCD: Six things you need to know

A while ago, a friend sent me the following email:

Random question, oh tech guru: I'm looking for a new TV, what are your thoughts on plasma vs. LCD? Moved to a bigger place, so I can get a decent-size screen, but I don't want to go broke. Also, looking at a 20-inch LCD for the bedroom. Right way to go? Again, your thoughts.

The question wasn't as random as he supposed; I've been receiving similar queries from other friends and readers regularly. The great marketing machines of Panasonic, Sony and Samsung have combined with major electronics retailers to work everybody into a flat-panel frenzy — even people who say they don't watch TV. The only problem, of course, is that there happen to be two kinds of flat panels, and both have their pluses and minuses. With that in mind, I've put together a quick rundown of what you should know before going the plasma or LCD route, along with a few pointers.

1. Price-to-size ratio

Samsung UA40B7100

40- and 42-inch flat-panel TVs such as the Samsung UA40B7100 are now mainstream. (Credit: Samsung)

At present, neither LCD nor plasma TVs are what you'd term a "budget" buy, with the two technologies costing about the same at the sweetspot of 40 to 42 inches. For example, a standard 42-inch plasma and LCD both go for about AU$2000. While plasma prices have remained relatively static in the last 12 months, LCD has continued to drop at sizes under 50 inches. However, larger versions won't cost the same as their plasma equivalents for quite a while.

The reason my friend was looking at a 20-inch TV for his bedroom is that prices for smaller LCD panels at the time were dropping the fastest, with a 20-incher coming in at a little more than AU$1200. Today, 26 inches are about the smallest the mainstream manufacturers sell and they are available for about half that price. Plasmas aren't available in that size, and while 32-inch plasmas were made they were generally of poor quality.

Just remember that a 20-inch screen is pretty small, and you'll have to sit rather close to it. It may be fine for viewing the news and sitcoms in bed, but it's obviously less than ideal for enjoying movies. And a 17-inch model should be reserved for use as a kitchen television or a computer monitor in a home office; while you work, you can watch TV in a little picture-in-picture box in a corner of the display.

Bottom line: 32-inch LCDs offer the greatest value among bedroom sets, and your best bet for the living room is a 40-inch or larger LCD or plasma.

2. Performance

Sony Bravia X-series

Sony's 70-inch Bravia X-series LCD TV was one of the most expensive TVs on the market, going for a whopping AU$69,999. (Credit: Sony)

A general rule of thumb is that plasmas deliver better home cinema performance than LCDs. Our video guru, David Katzmaier, says the difference is due mostly to the fact that backlighting-based LCD TVs typically can't display black as well as plasmas; it ends up closer to dark grey. That shortcoming decreases the amount of detail you can see in the shadows and ultimately leaves the picture looking — as videophiles would say — less three-dimensional.

The picture quality of both LCD and plasma panels is improving each year, but it can vary significantly from manufacturer to manufacturer, so check our lists of top products. We're nitpicky about performance in our reviews — of course, it's our job — and you should seriously consider our evaluations if you plan on using your set for home theatre viewing. But if you're buying a smaller LCD (26 inches or so) for the kitchen or the bedroom, don't agonise too much over performance.

3. Lifespan

Lifespan, the number of viewing hours a television provides before dimming to half brightness, used to be one of the biggest advantages LCD has over plasma. Though the numbers vary among the different brands, they now generally last up to around 100,000 hours regardless of the technology.

4. Burning issues

Panasonic Viera TH-P46G10A

Most modern plasma TVs, such as this Panasonic Viera come with an anti-burn-in function. (Credit: Panasonic)

One of plasma technology's known issues is something called burn-in. It happens when your television shows a still image or an icon for so long that its "ghost" remains on the screen. For example, if a stock ticker or a news crawl continuously runs along the bottom of your display, that strip may be burned into your set. The same applies to watching an excessive amount of standard TV (4:3) on a widescreen (16:9) model; the vertical bars to either side of the picture could become permanent. Manufacturers have taken steps to prevent burn-in, building in screensavers and other technologies. And you can virtually eliminate the danger by not leaving still images on the screen and reducing your contrast setting below 50 per cent for the first 100 hours of usage.

To their credit, LCDs don't suffer from burn-in, nor do they have troubles at high altitudes where the air pressure differential causes plasmas to emit an irritating buzzing sound. Unless you live at the summit of Mt Kosciusko, this is unlikely to be an issue. And if you do, plasma "whine" is likely to be the least of your problems.

5. Viewing free-to-air

Most plasmas and LCDs can display a high-def signal. However, you'll need a model with a resolution of at least 1280x720-pixel to enjoy HD television. Most 50-inch plasmas and most LCDs from 32 inches upwards offer this resolution in addition to 1080p compatibility, which means it will take full-HD content and scale it down. When you're watching HD feeds on a lower-resolution television of 42 inches or smaller, you'll have to sit much closer to notice much of a difference. But it's not always about resolution: take Pioneer's PDP-427XG. Even though the set provided only XGA resolution (1024x768), HD signals looked really good on it.

6. Computers and video games

Most plasma and LCD TVs can double as computer monitors; some even offer a DVI or D-Sub port for optimal video quality. They'll also hook up to a game console without any problems. So which technology is better for these purposes? From a performance standpoint, it's hard to pick a winner, but because of plasma's burn-in risk, LCD is the safer choice for computer work and gaming. We pick the best models for gaming here.

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ocnav posted a comment   

Sweet. I've had a Panasonic TH 42PX8A (plasma 42in 1024x768)for little over 2 years now.
It's fantastic.
In all honesty unless you are obsessed with image quality I don't think it'll mater what technology you get, probably just focus on what suits your budget and try to stick with your good brands.
I would like to talk about the 'burn-in' in with plasmas tho (as it really is their only negative) - you really don't have to worry about it. Mine has been used (game consol wise) on average 12 hours gaming every week, mostly in 2 - 3 hour blocks since I've bought the thing. And burn in is not a problem.
And never has been.
And on the rare instance of residual image it's effects are only temporary and disappear within a day or two of normal viewing. And even in the mean time it's only noticeable on a plain black or bright white screen. The only residual image I've ever experienced is when Gears of War 2


ronald facehead posted a comment   

CRT's are better than any of those god damn things :DDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD


snelly posted a comment   

Got a panasonic vierra 50" and the thing is giving us problems not turning on and the support from panasonic has been less than encouraging. I work dys so my wife rang and they treated her like a fool. Red light flashes twice then nothing


TonyB posted a comment   

What about power consumption? My understanding is that Plasma's use twice the power of comparable LCDs.


TonyB posted a comment   

What about power consumption? My understanding is that Plasma's use twice the power of comparable LCDs.


Hil posted a comment   

My boyfriend and I have spent hours looking at tvs and every sales person has said said if we were looking at 40in or more that we would be better off getting plasma unless we could afford an LCD with 240hz refresh rate which in the USA are a couple thousand dollars and still have issues with motion blur. So we went with a 46" Panasonic Viera TC-P46U1. We purchased the t.v. for less than US$700. This has been the best t.v. we have EVER owned and for under $1000 you cant go wrong.


curious posted a reply   

where did u get that from, sounds like a bargin!


Dave posted a reply   

Your comment has highlighted the huge price discrepancy between Japanese TV's sold in the US and the same sold in Australia. Nowhere can you find that Panasonic 46 inch for under AUD$1800. With the current exchange rate this is absurdly expensive.

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